Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Our first bright yellow flower of spring, the little prairie buttercup is indeed a welcome sight to the winter-weary eyes of North Dakota residents. Our state is now near the center of the range of this plant in North America; the species formerly occurred much farther east, but has been exterminated over large areas through cultivation of land.
Look for this perennial in heavily or moderately grazed native pastures. The plant grows best in rich moist soils, but does not occur in wetlands. The flowers are about a half-inch wide. The basal leaves are rhombic or nearly round with shallow rounded teeth. The upper leaves are dissected into three to five narrow segments. The whole plant may be only three to five inches high when in bloom, but later the stems elongate to eight to ten inches. The leaves and stem are covered with fine silky hairs.
Some buttercups contain a strong irritant that can harm the stomachs of livestock, but actual poisoning is rare because of the distasteful nature of the plants. The name for the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and the generic name Ranunculus are from the Latin for "a little frog," the name applied by the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder to these mostly aquatic plants that grow where frogs abound. Prairie buttercup was first described for science in 1822 by the Scottish botanist John Goldie (1793-1886).